The Big Ten Hockey Tournament Format Is Total Nonsense
March is here, which means conference hockey tournaments are in full swing.
Penn State narrowly escaped its Big Ten quarterfinal with an overtime win against Wisconsin in game 3 of last weekend’s series. Now, the Nittany Lions will advance to the rest of the tournament, which is single-elimination — because of course it is.
The Big Ten is not alone in this bizarre formatting. In fact, all six Division I hockey conferences follow suit with best-of-three series in the early round(s) before moving to single elimination in the later, more crucial rounds. Perhaps the most bizarre of these is the WCHA, which bothers to make both the quarter and semifinals feature best-of-three series before a winner-take-all final.
While Penn State can thank its lucky stars that the Big Ten hockey tournament isn’t entirely single elimination since it dropped the first of three games to the Badgers, this formatting phenomena is beyond peculiar. If any of the rounds should be a best-of-three series, the obvious choice would be the later ones. That way, you can guarantee the better team wins — well, as much as you can guarantee anything in sports.
Instead, the lesser rounds are best-of-three, and for what? To ensure that the best four teams make it to the next round? Then why bother with the quarterfinals in the first place?
We love the postseason because it gives us the randomness we crave, but we also want them to crown a deserving champion. Otherwise, we would just gift the conference title to the team with the best regular season record.
Single-elimination tournaments facilitate upsets, because an underdog can win on any given day. But they’re simultaneously flawed for the same reason — a few bad bounces of the puck or poor officiating on one day can cost a team its championship hopes. Why make a team outlast a best-of-three series just to get eliminated by some bullshit in the semifinals or worse, in the final?
It would be far more logical to reward teams that survive preliminary single elimination rounds with a best-of-three series to alleviate some of the pressure of a win-or-go-home format and assure that the champion is, in fact, a deserving one. Hell, it would be far more logical to just make the entire conference tournament single-elimination like the NCAA tournament, because then at least it would be consistent.
The worst part about the Big Ten tournament is the fact that the conference had it right before. The first three conference tournaments were entirely single-elimination. Every single game was do or die, and it created for some of the most thrilling action of the season. The drawback, of course, was the fact that teams had to win three games in three days to win the title, which the Nittany Lions famously did in 2016-17.
Penn State, of course, just played three games in as many days again. Sure, it didn’t win all of them this time around, but the team put in nearly the same workload as 2017 just for a 1-in-4 shot at the trophy. Penn State and Wisconsin’s series was the first in two years of this format to go the distance, but with the ever-increasing competition of the Big Ten, you’ve got to anticipate more three-game quarterfinal series down the road.
The current format of conference hockey tournaments is, to put it politely, nonsensical. Hockey conferences must be trying to take March Madness to a new level that is truly mad, because that’s the only explanation for a best-of-three quarterfinal that I can come up with.
Hockey conference commissioners: If you’re reading this, you know where to reach me.
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About the Author
Ryan Field was a sea of white in the Nittany Lions’ week five return to Illinois on Saturday.
No location or opening timeline has been released yet.
The schedule is highlighted by a Monday night dual against Rutgers at the Bryce Jordan Center in February.